So far, Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR farewell tour has featured some nice parting gifts but also some nasty parting shots.
Gordon, who announced in January this would be his last year as a fulltime competitor in the Sprint Cup Series, has been caught up in wrecks in the first two races of the season leaving him 35th in the series standings.
His wreck at Atlanta last weekend was compounded by the fact his car slammed into a wall not protected by energy-absorbing SAFER barriers – an all-too-familiar scenario for Gordon during his career.
“We have had a couple of rough weekends,” said Gordon, who has finishes of 33rd and 41st to start the year. “It’s a little bit of pressure.
“What we’ve got to do as a team is perform at the level we’re capable of performing at. Yeah, you have to perform well, but you have to finish well, too.”
He appeared to get off to a strong start this weekend, winning the pole for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – the first of his career at the track.
However, in the final minute of Saturday afternoon’s final practice, Danica Patrick spun in front of Gordon and the two made contact, doing enough damage to Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet to require him to move to a backup car. The change will force Gordon to start from the rear of the field in Sunday’s race.
Hopefully, some of the “farewell gifts” presented to Gordon the first few weeks of the season have helped him handle the frustrations.
On Friday, track president Chris Powell presented Gordon with a custom-designed blackjack table.
That gift came on the heels of last weekend’s gift from Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark of a Bandolero race car inscribed with the names of both of Gordon’s children, Ella and Leo.
“Everybody told me, ‘Oh boy, you’re going to be getting a bunch of gifts that are going to embarrass you’ or whatever,” Gordon said about his final visits to tracks as a competitor. “Not so far.
“If this is the way our gift-giving is going to go this year, man, I’ll tell you what, I’m doing all right.”
Despite the tough start to the season Gordon hasn’t waivered his belief that he and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team remain capable of contending for wins and the championship.
If anything, the inability to get through the first two races without incident has only provided more motivation to do well.
Where better to look for a change of luck than Las Vegas?
“Here we are in Vegas and we are talking about gambling and playing the odds. That is the way that I look at crashes,” he said. “Last year I didn’t hit much. I didn’t crash a whole lot.
“We had a really solid season but those percentages and odds kind of catch up to you. I’m hoping we are getting them out of the way here early in the season.
“I know we’ve got a very strong race car and race team to be able to go and perform and move up in the points and put some victories on the board.”
He’s done it before at Las Vegas, although it has been a while.
Gordon, 43, has competed in all previous 17 races on the track since it opened. His lone win came in the 2001 season – the year he won the last of his four Cup series championships.
“When we first started coming here, it was a really tough race track to compete on and win at. So that win in 2001 meant a lot to me because it was a personal hill to climb and challenge, as well as a team challenge,” he said.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing all the right things to get us to Victory Lane; not so much team and the car, and we won that race in ’01 and that was a big moment.”
A win Sunday would have an even more significant impact thanks to NASCAR’s Chase format implemented last season.
A win would all-but guarantee Gordon an opportunity to compete for a fifth series championship in his final season, regardless of how the year began.
“I think we are a very good race team,” he said. “We haven’t shown all of it yet. There is nothing to me that is sweeter than to be able to go have that kind of experience in your final year (but) there is no reconsidering.”
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.